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The future arrives gradually. Unless you’re Rip Van Winkle, you don’t even notice. But once in a while there’s a signpost that says, “Yup. You’re living in the future.” I saw one this morning, and it arrived courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

I get most of my news from the Web these days, but I like the ritual of reading the actual paper during breakfast. I know about the accumulating cutbacks in the editorial staff, and I’ve noticed changes: Fewer investigative pieces, more stories from wire services, shrinking (and then vanishing) sections. I know it’s happening, but it’s happening gradually.

But I think we’ve reached a tipping point:

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Here’s a zoomed-in version:

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My kids like to point out that I almost never actually laugh. When they tell a joke, the best they can usually hope for is that I’ll crack a smile. But I actually LOL’d when Linda showed me this page in the paper today.

As someone who previously worked in a professional publishing operation, though, this is actually fairly sad. It’s not that mistakes don’t happen; they always do. It’s not that they’ve had to cut back on the layers of proofreading that would have caught this early. It’s that this was a really glaring mistake. I think there’s a chance they knew about it before they went to press, but decided to print it like this anyway.

In an earlier era, the editorial folks would have said, “No way can you print it like this. We have to eat the cost of fixing it, or our reputation for competence will suffer horribly.” But if that conversation took place, apparently the editorial folks at the Times don’t have that kind of pull anymore.

Update: Kevin Roderick, writing in his LAO Blog (So much for those later deadlines), adds a little detail, courtesy of an email he received from someone who works on the Times’ Calendar section:

“We only have late deadlines Sunday through Wednesday nights. Thursday was our regular 3 pm deadline, which was delayed almost 40 minutes by the computer system crashing, which caused the Quick Takes problem.”

So, they ran out of time due to a computer system crash? And rather than delaying, they just sent the story anyway? That makes it sound like it may have been a known-when-it-went-out-the-door problem, rather than a not-noticed-until-it-was-gone problem, as I speculated in my original post. Which, again, is kind of depressing.

I haven’t seen any official acknowledgment or explanation so far. Here’s the text of a query I sent to Jamie Gold, the LA Times’ readers’ representative, last night.

I was one of a number of people who noticed the unfortunate proofreading error in Friday’s print edition, when the “Quick Takes” sidebar on D2 had all its placeholder headings (“tag briefs subhead large”, etc.) left in place, rather than being replaced by the actual headlines. I posted about it on my blog, at http://www.lies.com/wp/2009/03/27/blog-post-subhead-large/.

As someone who has worked in the editorial operation at a number of trade magazines, I sympathize with the pain of having an error like that go out. I’m only too aware of how easy it is for such mistakes to happen. And really, it’s one of those things that is more humorous (at least from the outside) than anything else.

Except for an aspect of it that I can’t help wondering about (and that I talked about in my blog post): To what extent might this error be related to the widely reported cutbacks in editorial staff that your paper has made in the last few years? As a long-time subscriber, I’m concerned by the possibility that the erosion of the newspaper business model resulting from things like craigslist is going to lead to more staff cuts and more mistakes like this, as well as other, more significant reductions in editorial quality.

I hope the Times will publish some account of what happened, what steps, if any, are being taken to prevent a re-occurrence, and most importantly, what a subscriber like myself, who is concerned about the effects of editorial cutbacks, should think about the incident’s significance.

I looked in today’s paper for some mention, but couldn’t find anything. Has the issue already been addressed publicly? Will it be?

Thanks.

Later update: Jamie Gold, the Times’ reader’s rep, responded to me via email this afternoon:

A note on Page A4 in the “For the Record” section was published that day. In this case, it was a computer glitch — the final page that editors saw before sending the pages in showed the correct headlines, but what appeared off the presses didn’t match what editors had seen earlier.

But I’ll forward your point to editors for their thoughts about your broader concerns regarding quality control and staffing cuts.

So, that’s kind of cool, that she’s working on a Sunday answering random emails. I didn’t notice the A4 “For the Record” item on Friday, and appear to have used that section since then to light the barbecue, but I’ll take her word for it.

That explanation leaves a question unanswered, though: At what stage was the problem actually noticed? Was an explicit decision made to ship the problematic version? How much zeal can a reader of the Times reasonably expect the paper to employ in pursuit of editorial quality? I’m not trying to be snarky. I’m actually curious what the answer is, and I suspect that the answer might not be the same today as it was a few years ago.

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